Church Camp 2.0

Over the years, I have had conversations with other church leaders about why they wanted to go into the ministry. The two most common stories are either about the kind of church that they grew up in and the other, about the transformative experience of church camp.

Zoom meeting

Many of our churches during the pandemic attracted a whole new demographic of people through online services. One of the questions that I have heard has been, “How are we going to integrate these people who connected with us through technology and who aren’t likely to show up on Sunday mornings?

weird churchIn the book Weird Church, authors Beth Ann Estock and Paul Nixon, highlight nineteen different models of the emerging church. Two of those models reminded me of the experience of church camp.

I also went to church camp every year from sixth grade until high school. I do remember it as a highlight of my childhood years. That one week in the mountains of Colorado had as much impact on me as the nearly every Sunday experiences of being in church.

I especially remember one dark, cold, clear night sleeping out under the stars during a meteor shower. It was during my second year at Presbyterian church horse camp (I believe the kids were Presbyterian; the horses were all non-denominational!) We had packed our horses with food, cooking equipment, sleeping bags, Bibles and a guitar or two. We rode our horses up the mountain to a 9,000-foot pass and set up camp.

Night sky with milky way and huge amount of stars.

After an evening of good campfire food, storytelling and singing we were finally allowed to find some flat spot for our sleeping bags. Somehow, I ended up sleeping next to a cute red-headed girl. We laid there staring up at the clear Colorado skies as dozens of shooting stars streaked across the mysterious expanse every minute.

What I remember about my childhood was that I loved the community and the fellowship of my church family, but I felt especially close to God that night under the stars in the Rocky Mountains of Colorado. I went into ministry largely because those church camp experiences gave me a thirst for God that has dogged me all these years.

We are so accustomed to thinking that shaping a person’s Christian spiritual life needs to come in the form of weekly worship and Bible studies. But the truth is that the most transformative and formative experiences are often found in those once in a lifetime or once every year type of activities.

The Weird Church authors highlight two forms of the emerging church that reflect this model—pilgrimage and one that they are calling “same time next year.”

I share these two models because some of you are asking, “How are we going to connect with the dozens of people who became extensions of our congregation during the pandemic through our online offerings?”

Muslim pilgrims arriving at Mecca

Pilgrimages are often once-in-a-lifetime experiences. For Catholics walking the Camino de Santiago in Spain is the ultimate religious experience. Every Muslim is mandated to go to Mecca once in their lifetime. At a critical juncture in my own life, I set up my own pilgrimage—a ten-week, 4,000-mile cycling route that connected me to all the places I had lived. Our own Brett Webb-Mitchell, pastor of the Community of Pilgrims, has completed many pilgrimages around the world and is the author of three books on the subject. The Presbytery of the Cascades is now embarking on establishing a pilgrimage route along the 352-mile Oregon Coast Trail. Pilgrimage is now back in vogue.

“Same time next year” is the title that Weird Church authors give those camp-like experiences that many of us remember from our childhood. They are the camps that we return to every summer or fall where we see the same people. They are the retreats that participants book months in advance and eventually become like family reunions. Ghost Ranch in New Mexico is known for their “same time next year” church communities as well as Companions on the Inner Way.

The pandemic has been brutally tough, but it has also exposed some new opportunities that we couldn’t see before.

  • What if your church contracted with a person who was just responsible for planning and organizing those once-in-a-lifetime and “same-time-next-year” church activities?
  • What if you had one person who concentrated on discovering and meeting the spiritual needs of those people who, because of distance or lack of interest, would rarely show up for Sunday services, but might consider other formats?
  • What if your church reached out to those whose spiritual development is best met by providing opportunities for an intensive week-long experience rather than to a year’s worth of worship services? (In other words, those who would commit 168 hours (the hours in a week) to an intensive experience rather than 52 hours to one-hour weekly experiences.)

I don’t remember a single worship service from my childhood despite having attended hundreds of them. But I do remember that one night at church horse camp sleeping under the stars watching a magnificent meteor light show, and sharing it with a cute red-headed girl. My thirst for God started there.

God is not limited to one hour on Sunday. God sometimes shows up in those once-in-a-lifetime moments and never goes away.

By Rev. Brian Heron, Presbyter for Vision and Mission, Presbytery of the Cascades

2 thoughts on “Church Camp 2.0

  1. “same time next year” camps – and all the anecdotal reports of how many ministers felt called tot he ministry during camp experiences leads me to wonder why, of all things, did the Presbytery of the Cascades eliminate the Outdoor Ministries Team, sell off all camp properties or potential camp properties owned by the presbytery, and give up on giving children and youth the experiences they NEED in order to find faith attractive in our denomination? And do you wonder why our denomination in this state is shrinking faster than in the midwest, northeast, southeast and south? Unfortunately, I fully recognize I have a sore point on this subject, so I will try to curb my feelings of injustice toward the short-sightedness on the part of some previous leaders in our presbytery…but the data shared above DOES beg the question….
    I was very heartened watching the partnership (despite the challenges) that arose with the United Methodist Camp and Retreat Ministries of the OR-ID Conference and the Oregon Episcopal Diocess when they merged their efforts to support camp and retreat ministries under the auspices of “” and very discouraged when I suggested the Presbytery of the Cascades join that partnership. I would be more than happy to have that discussion open up again – provided it became a real partnership and our denominational logo was emblazoned across the gocamping website along with the UMC and the Episcopal’s. Creative Collaborations are the future of the church – and in my heart of hearts, I know that will mean true cross/multiple denominational partnerships as well as other secular/spiritual collaborative efforts to truly meet the needs of the communities in which we live and move and have our being. A Matthew 25 Presbytery should recognize that we are not the only entity that believes in doing good. Camp – is good, very good.


  2. Dear Brian,

    More than ever, I think you are onto something. Or should I say, you are talking about an approach to Christian learning and worship that makes sense to me. My senior year in high school three of my friends and I were talked into participating in a YMCA conference over the Thanksgiving holiday – Friday – Sunday. The location was the Yosemite Valley attended by hundreds. To this day I remember the keynote address “Who in the Hell Do You Think You Are, Where in the Hell Are You Going and How in The Hell Do You Plan to Get There?” I also remember that the weather was beautiful and that I met this intriguing girl with whom we had an extended debate on smoking or not to smoke. At the time I occasionally smoked.

    My point is that to this day I remember substantive elements of the event. The keynote address, the beauty of the environment, the smoky conversation. More than once I have used the components of the keynote speech in mission statement discussions, pastor nominating committees, etc.

    Since that inspirational time in the fall of 1959 my wife and/or I have enjoyed many retreat type opportunities – church retreats, family camps, Ghost Ranch, Lenten community ecumenical worship/study, church weekend guest speakers, etc. They give us a chance to explore a specific subject in more depth, to get to know people from a different perspective, to open our minds. They remove us from the regular routine that can also be called mundane.

    Maybe as churches regather following the pandemic time off, they might be more open to trying some new or varied approaches. Three cheers for the Weird Churches.

    Keep on keepen on.

    En paz

    Bill Griffith, Jr.


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